Big 12 expansion and conference realignment are back to being open discussion, which I guess is going to be an annual thing until the Big 12 no longer sits at ten teams. This, despite the fact that the conference will now be able to hold a championship game without adding to its membership.
I actually agree with Stewart Mandel that having ten members playing a round robin schedule is the best setup of any conference for the purpose of picking a champion in football. In a perfect world, there wouldn't be any pressure on the league to expand unless there was some non-Power 5 program out there obviously ready to make The Leap that made geographic sense—and there's not.
Anyway, let's go over the three basics of this discussion.
1. The SEC Need Not React
As Mandel points out in that mailbag I linked to above, the SEC and Big Ten are distancing themselves from the other Power 5 conferences financially. They are also shaping up to be great competitively for a while in the money sports too—the SEC more so in baseball, the Big Ten (for now, we'll see how the recent hires fare) more so in men's basketball.
Anything the Big 12 does to expand will be to play catchup with the SEC. As I'll outline below, there isn't anything the Big 12 can plausibly do to pass up the SEC in any meaningful way either. So if the Big 12 goes and adds two or four—or heck, even six—new members, the SEC doesn't have to do anything to react to it.
2. Oklahoma Is the Key School This Time, Maybe
As usual, OU president David Boren is the one making the most noise about expanding the conference. In 2010, Texas was the institution driving the Big 12 bus, but Oklahoma is the one that matters most now.
The theory goes that Boren may get tired of waiting on Big 12 expansion and begin shopping his school around. He tried that in 2011, proposing OU and Oklahoma State as a package deal to the Pac-12. That went nowhere, but he might do it again with the Big Ten or SEC. He'd almost certainly get nowhere if those schools are tied together, as having multiple member schools in the same state no longer makes sense unless they've been in the conference forever. Or, you know, if you're the Big 12 and you're facing an existential crisis and TCU is the best option on short notice.
If you want to read more on what OU would offer to another conference, the Sooner blog Blatant Homerism has a good summary up right now. It's moot if OU and OSU are tied at the hip, but in the off chance they're not, the Sooners would be an attractive prize. I don't think anyone expects Boren to make such a move this year, but it's something to keep in the back of your mind.
3. It's All About TV
One of the big reasons the SEC and Big Ten are so far out in front is that their conference networks are making loads of money. Having a proprietary network doesn't necessarily mean a windfall, as the Pac-12 can tell you. But Big 12 fans have more in common with SEC and Big Ten fans than they do Pac-12 fans, so a Big 12 Network done competently would probably be a success.
A Big 12 Network can't happen as long as the Longhorn Network exists. That issue is a giant gnarled up knot inside a hornet's nest, so I'm not going to try to lay out a plan on how Texas decides to give that up and play nice with its neighbors.
Even though the LHN is a nightmare to deal with and 2016 isn't exactly the best time to be launching a new TV network, let's imagine a world where the Big 12 forms a network and goes on the hunt for adding inventory.
We first need to establish a baseline. The SEC's footprint contains about 95.4 million people, using the July 1, 2015 estimates available on Wikipedia. The Big Ten Network's footprint—which includes New York City and Washington, D.C.—contains a comparable number at approximately 94.2 million, using the 2014 NYC estimate and 2015 D.C. estimate. The Big 12's footprint contains a mere 39.2 million people, or about 41% the number of people that the SEC and Big Ten each have.
Unless you believe the fever dreams of some of my favorite realignment rumor mongers out there—the Arizona schools are unhappy with the Pac-12!—then the Big 12 would be looking at adding teams that aren't in the Power 5. Here are the populations that the most commonly cited potential targets could bring for a Big 12 Network:
|UCF or USF
|UConn + NYC
Houston has gotten some buzz in recent months about being a potential Big 12 target, but in a conference network driven decision process, the Cougars have no shot.
It would seem to be a no brainer to add a team from Florida. It's the third largest state in the country, with only California and Texas being bigger. The Big 12 has Texas covered, and there probably isn't a non-Pac-12 school in California that could guarantee Big 12 Network carriage throughout the entire state. I'm not sure that UCF or USF could do that in Florida, to be honest, but let's just assume for now that one of them could.
The next biggest question is whether UConn could deliver the New York City market. Here, as well as with the Big Ten estimate above, I only included the population of NYC proper and not the entire New York City metro area, as that includes parts of both New Jersey and Connecticut. If the Big 12 could somehow get a guarantee that the Huskies can bring the Big Apple, they'd be the obvious second option. If not, then Cincinnati becomes the next choice.
The next question would then be how many schools to add. Does it want to go to 12 or 14?
At 12 members, the biggest expansion would be adding a Florida school plus UConn with NYC. That would get the footprint up to 71.6 million. Adding a Florida school and Cincy wouldn't be far behind that at 71.1 million. Either of those is still over 20 million behind the SEC and Big Ten, but it'd still be nearly doubling the conference's population amount.
Going to 14 members, the Yahtzee combination would be doing a Florida school, UConn with NYC, Cincinnati, and Memphis. That dream scenario would push the population size up to 89.8 million, which is a stone's throw from what the SEC and Big Ten have.
A more realistic 14 that is focused more on athletic accomplishment would be a Florida school, Cincinnati, Memphis, and BYU—assuming the Cougars' lack of playing on Sunday isn't a problem. That would land the league at 80.7 million people. Going with a New York-less UConn instead of BYU pushes that number up over 81 million. That's respectable, but t's still not in the top tier with the SEC and Big Ten.
But like I said above, there isn't really anything the Big 12 could realistically do to pass up or match the SEC. Even if we combined the wildest Big 12 expansion theories and it somehow added the Arizona schools (population: about 200,000 more than Tennessee), Florida State, and Clemson (population: just shy of five million), it becomes a tremendously more competitive league with almost 25 million fewer people in its footprint. That'd be an athletic home run, but it'd still be well behind the SEC and Big Ten financially.
Even the Yahtzee scenario would probably leave the Big 12 well behind. The SECN fetches $1.30 per household per month inside the footprint, and the BTN gets $1 per home per month. I could see a B12N getting $1 or more each month from homes in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Iowa, but is UCF enough to get that in Florida? Or Cincinnati enough to get that from Ohio? Or Memphis in Tennessee? I have to believe the fee would be lower in some or all of those states, making the gap larger than the population gap might otherwise suggest.
The bottom line is that if there was an obvious move for Big 12 expansion, it probably would have happened by now. If the conference does decide to add members, it'll have to do so with a clear goal in mind because there are big tradeoffs to every possibility.